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Bush vows to support Israel in battling 'terror'

Predicts free and independent Middle East

Visiting U.S. President George W. Bush offered a peace prophecy for the Middle East on Thursday, vowing to support Israel in battling "terror" groups as America's "best friend" marks its 60th anniversary.

"America stands with you in breaking up terrorist networks and denying the extremists sanctuary," Bush said in a loudly applauded address to the Israeli parliament.

He called U.S. ally Israel, on its 60th anniversary, a "homeland for the chosen people" and made only fleeting mention of Palestinian hopes for statehood.

Bush is in Israel at the start of a five-day tour of the region to try to advance peace negotiations and mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish state, an event the Palestinians regard as a "catastrophe."

On Wednesday, an emotional Bush pledged that America would remain "Israel's best friend in the world". His host, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, appeared to bring a tear to the president's eye when he called him "a great leader, a great friend".

Bush's Middle East

He hailed what he termed "unbreakable" ties between the United States and Israel, describing Israel as a thriving democracy threatened by regional adversaries and their armed proxies.

"So as we mark 60 years from Israel's founding, let us try to envision the region 60 years from now," said Bush, whose popularity at home has been hurt by an unpopular war in Iraq.

"Israel will be celebrating its 120th anniversary as one of the world's greatest democracies", he said, and "the Palestinian people will have a homeland, a democratic state that is governed by law, respects human rights and rejects terror".

Bush said that "from Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies". Iran and Syria "will be peaceful nations, where today's oppression is a distant memory".

"Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause," he said.

Bush also warned that allowing arch foe Iran to obtain nuclear weapons would be "an unforgivable betrayal of future generations."

His address to the Knesset comes against a backdrop of deadly turmoil in Lebanon after the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah militant group overran pro-government forces in days of fierce sectarian battles.

Bad timing

Bush hopes to give impetus to peace talks during his visit, but the timing of his trip has angered Palestinians who marked Israel's 60 years by remembering the 1948 exodus of some 760,000 Arabs after the birth of the state.

Thousands of Palestinians joined rallies in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank to commemorate what they call the Nakba, or "catastrophe."

Israeli Arab parliamentarians boycotted the Knesset session but three showed up holding up photographs of dead Palestinian and Iraqi children and a banner proclaiming: "We shall overcome."

Stalled talks

Bush did not repeat his oft-spoken hope of sealing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves the White House in January, a target date that has aroused public skepticism.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who also addressed parliament, said he was certain a peace agreement "will be approved in the Knesset by a large majority and will be supported by the vast majority of the Israeli public".

There have been few signs of progress in U.S.-brokered negotiations since promises were made at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November.

Israel and Palestinian militants have talked separately to Egyptian mediators about a possible truce, but Hamas rejected Israel's demand that it free an Israeli soldier captured almost two years ago.

In the latest setback to a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert has been urged to resign over suspicions he took bribes from a U.S. businessman. Olmert has denied wrongdoing but pledged to quit if indicted.

Violence around the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has also hampered peace efforts.